Karl Hyde, Underworld Music Maker, Surfaces

Apr 27, 2013
Originally published on April 27, 2013 6:20 pm

Karl Hyde is one-half of the English electronic dance duo Underworld. But he's also an installation artist, a painter and a composer. Last year, he collaborated with director Danny Boyle on the music for the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony.

Though he's been making dance music with Underworld for over 25 years, mixing his club beats with fragmented lyrics, Hyde wanted his first solo record to go deeper.

"The idea was to become more personal, to put myself in there," Hyde says. "I've always hidden behind this vast wall of words and so there was a period, real painful period, of trying to find myself."

Edgeland, Hyde's solo debut, is out May 7, and it delivers on his pledge to make more personal music. The song "Your Perfume Was the Best Thing" was inspired by a near-death experience he had crossing a London street.

"The lights change, and it says I can cross, and there's a bus," Hyde says. "And as I cross, a van comes pounding around the outside of this bus, and doesn't see the lights. Slams on his brakes, and I just think, well, that's that, then. And I just let go."

Moments later, Hyde says, he realized he was still standing on that spot — alive.

"I don't know what happened. It didn't hit me," he says. "I'm there outside the Royal Park and the trees are just radiant in the sunshine ... and [it's as if] someone's whispering to me, 'Not now. It's not your time.'"

Hyde spoke with weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden. To hear more of their conversation about the making of Edgeland, click the audio link on this page.

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And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.


LYDEN: This song is called "The Night Slips Us Smiling Underneath Its Dress," and it's the first track off of Karl Hyde's debut solo album, "Edgeland." Hyde is one half of the English electronic dance duo Underworld. He's also an installation artist, a painter and a composer frequently scoring director Danny Boyle's films.

Last year, he collaborated with Boyle on the music for the spectacular 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony. And although he's been making dance music with Underworld for over 25 years mixing his club beats with fragmented lyrics, Hyde wanted his first solo record to go deeper.

KARL HYDE: The idea was to become more personal, was to put myself in there. I've always hidden behind this vast wall of words. And so there was a period of - a real painful period of trying to find myself.

LYDEN: Well, we quite like vast walls of words here at NPR. But let's talk about a song I particularly loved here, and that's "Your Perfume Was the Best Thing." I'm quite an admirer of perfume myself. Your voice is so much at the center of this. Can you tell me a little of the backstory of this song?

HYDE: Yeah. It was a journey that I'd made into London specifically to actually see Brian Eno give a lecture in a college in London. Had a fantastic day going around talking to the students and just talking about work and art and music and stuff and just left there just on a high. Beautiful, sunny day, I'm walking down the road. The lights change, and it says I can cross. And there's a bus, and I cross. And as I cross, a van comes pounding down the other side of this bus and just doesn't see the lights, slams on his brakes, and I just think, well, that's that then. And I just let go.

And I don't know what happened. It didn't hit me. And this is the story of, I'm there outside the royal park and the trees are just radiant in the sunshine. And this whole image of these dancing trees and this kind of, this perfume. Someone was whispering to me and kind of going: Not now. It's not now, you know? Not your time now.


HYDE: (Singing) And when the impact never came, everything went quiet. All the trees stopped their dancing and I started to grin. And then you kissed me although the drivers were watching, held me with your lips as I was slipping away. Put your face up so close to mine and whispered...

LYDEN: Cardiff Art College, where you went, you specialized in video, installations, painting. Take me back to those days. And I'm curious how you went from making art to making music.

HYDE: Well, how I even got into art in the first place.

LYDEN: Yeah. And why Cardiff.

HYDE: Yeah. Well, because I followed a girl. Where I came from...

LYDEN: You're the first musician I've ever spoken to who's followed a girl.


HYDE: I feel so unique. Where I come from, you either grow up and work on your dad's farm or you go and work in a carpet factory, and that was it. And so a teacher, who wore a fantastic miniskirt, said that she wouldn't talk to me again if I went to work in a carpet factory and had I thought of art school.

And, you know, coming from a tiny farming community, I'd never even heard of art school. So, of course, I did exactly what she said, and I ran away to art school. And that, coupled with my musical education, which had been John Cale, you know, on the BBC, utterly eclectic.

You go there to listen to the blues and you end up listening to punk or electronics or whatever. That just formed my point of view. I've had to leave the door open constantly to keep moving in and out of different genres and different areas.


HYDE: (Singing) You said I write words like a painter. We work in (unintelligible) themes every time.

LYDEN: I'm speaking with musician Karl Hyde. He's one half of the electronic music duo Underworld, and his new solo album debut is called "Edgeland." You met your band member, Rick Smith, while you were at Cardiff College, and you guys formed Underworld together in '87. And you've had such a wonderful influence there. Did the two of you have a vision for how you were going to proceed, or were you always sort of experimenting as you went along?

HYDE: We formed our first band in about 1980, 1979, '80. And that was really based on the concept of bringing black Jamaican dub together with white German electronics. We love those two forms of music, and we both loved film music, so the soundscapes of film music. Those three areas, we wanted to fuse together.

And we were pretty poor, so we took the dollar, and we decided we'd sign up and be pop stars, which we failed at miserably for 10 years until Rick finally threw the towel in and said: I think dance music is our calling, which is electronic music, which is what we love, and "Underworld Mk2" came about.

And so, really, that was the first time that we had a clear concept was when Rick said" I think our home is on the dance floor. No one is ever going to listen to us. No one's ever going to play us on the radio or on TV or write about us. Our best way to go is by working with DJs. And, in fact, that's what we've - the kind of music we've been playing for 10 years, except we've been in denial.


LYDEN: "Trainspotting" was a big breakthrough for you guys. The "Born Slippy" B side off the second album called "Second Toughest in the Infants," and, of course, featured in the Danny Boyle film. You know, that film was so iconic, and it really seemed a way to introduce you to new audiences.

HYDE: Yeah. It was quite a turning point for us, really, very strange, because in a couple of ways, it worked against what we believed in. First of all, all our friends had read Irvine Welsh's book and had come back eulogizing about how great the stories were about people getting off their faces. And we thought, well, that's not really the kind of areas they want our music associated with. Strange as that might sound, we never saw our music as having any drugs association at all. It was about getting high off of music.

So when Danny approached us, our initial reaction was no. But he convinced us by showing us excerpts from the film in which it was clear it wasn't propagandizing anything positive about drug use at all. Then it came down to the record label Junior Boy's Own to cajole us into rereleasing "Born Slippy," which has already been a successful dance floor hit as far as we were concerned.

And at that point, we were dead against any kind of rerelease of anything. We've just always been really cheesy and quite crass. So they canvassed 100 deejays up and down Britain, and 99 of them - God bless them - the one in Cardiff said he hated it - but 99 of them, you know, kind of said: You got to rerelease this. And that's what got us to do it.

LYDEN: Oh, my goodness. Wow. I bet you celebrated that.

HYDE: Yeah. It was one those mistakes I'm really glad we didn't make.


UNDERWORLD: (Singing) So many things to see and do in the tube hole true, blonde going back to Romford mega, mega, mega going back to Romford. Hi, mom, are you having fun. And now are you on your way to a new tension. Headache.

LYDEN: You know, you talk about all these ideas that are eating away at you, and I'm sure continue to. You're now in your 50s, still just making all kinds of projects happen. You've done this solo album. What do you think will be next?

HYDE: Well, there's so much to do. There's hours and hours of material recorded with Brian that's yet to come out. I've got an installation that I'd shot at the end of last summer. I've got a lot of paintings that are on the go at the moment. So - and then music, I've started to discuss making more music. I have so many great musicians to work with, so many things to explore, you know? There's really not enough time, is there?

LYDEN: No. There's really not enough time. Well, Karl Hyde, I think you are the consummate abstract expressionist in whatever medium you're choosing. And I really want to thank you for all the glorious detail.

HYDE: Thank you, Jacki. I really appreciate your time.

LYDEN: Karl Hyde, co-creator of the English electronic group Underworld. His debut solo album "Edgeland" will be released May 7.


LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on programs and scroll down or follow me on Twitter @nprjackilyden. We are back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.